Artificial intelligence has thrashed humans at chess. Now the bots are gunning for mahjong.

An AI-powered program developed by Microsoft Corp. has surpassed the average level of the top players in a recent competition in Japan, Harry Shum, executive vice-president of the company’s artificial intelligence and research group, said in Shanghai on Thursday.

“To those friends who usually lose money in mahjong, this is good news to you,” Shum said to laughter at the World AI Conference. “The bot player developed by Microsoft can deal with high uncertainty, presenting instincts akin to human, projection and deduction capabilities as well as a sense of overall consciousness.”

A mahjong game in Beijing. (Picture: EPA-EFE)

Mahjong is a gin rummy-style game played by four players who try to collect tiles to form suits. Unlike the 52-card pack, a mahjong set consists of 136 or 144 tiles and rules vary with the region. It is a common pastime among Chinese communities and often played at family gatherings, weddings and funerals. Describing the game as highly complicated with “more hidden information” than go, chess or poker, Shum declared that Microsoft has developed the strongest AI mahjong player.

When Google’s AI computer program AlphaGo beat Chinese Go master Ke Jie in May 2017, that was widely seen as the Sputnik moment that spurred China to seek dominance in the AI industry.

In July 2017, China’s State Council issued a three-step road map to become a world leader in AI by 2030. AI was also identified as one of China’s major tasks in the country’s 13th Five-Year Plan, which would guide government policy between 2016 and 2020.

The government also included AI in its Internet Plus initiative, which was established in 2015 as a national strategy to spur economic growth driven by innovative, internet-related technologies.

The practical applications of AI are huge – from diagnosing serious illnesses like lung cancer using medical imaging, to improving manufacturing processes using sensors and big data, to enhancing security and surveillance at immigration controls at airports using facial recognition technology. The technology also has military uses.

Microsoft’s lighthearted presentation in Shanghai was delivered after US President Donald Trump’s call to ditch their investments in China. Trump said in a tweet last week that he was prepared to use emergency powers to force American companies to cut ties with China.

Besides the mahjong-playing program, the Seattle-based tech giant also unveiled an education program in Shanghai in partnership with the country’s elite Tsinghua University, China Europe International Business School and Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business.

The AI business school program is designed to train corporate executives through a series of online and classroom courses and equip business leaders with AI knowledge, according to Shum.

Shum also said that Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 headset will go on sale in September. The headset is manufactured in Suzhou, China.

At last year’s conference, Microsoft announced the establishment of an innovation center in Shanghai to bring its top AI research capabilities to the city.

The three-day AI conference that started on Thursday has attracted nearly 300 companies including US firms Intel, IBM and Qualcomm as well as scientists and scholars from across the world.